On Cartoons for Grown Ups

One of the best perks of living in New York City – besides amazing food options, unparalleled diversity and wonderfully accessible public transit – is the weekly influx of new film. Every Friday, a new crop of titles debuts, so many that it’s impossible to keep up (though trust me, I try!).

The_Wind_Rises_posterWhen my sister-in-law, a week past her due date and exhausted, texted to ask me to find time to see what its said will be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, I was happy to oblige. That the request came during the one week I had hardly any free time was of no matter – screening for just a week and no sign of a wider release, she said she hoped to have a chance to live vicariously through me. After all that woman’s done for me, I figure going to a film is the least I can do (twist my arm).

The fact that I didn’t make it until the very last screening on the very last day it was playing (10pm on a Thursday night) only matters in that I was very, very tired as the film started. But the packed house – seriously, I think the show sold out – and the wonderful film quickly perked me up.

Miyazaki’s films – Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo – have the look and feel at first glance of children’s films with their whimsical landscapes, fluid shapes and bright colors. But look a bit deeper and more often than not you’ll realize he’s animating for a grown up audience, the child protagonists stand-ins for our own missed experiences and lapsed perspectives.

In The Wind Rises, our main character begins as a child, but its his adulthood where we spend the most time with him. A child with dreams of airplanes and the wonder of flight (which are animated in the magical, incongruous style of dreams themselves), Jiro grows up to be an engineer, but not before a life-altering experience during the Greatn Kanto earthquake of 1923. The sequence, kicked off by a series of establishing shots where the drawn earth literally growls (most if not all of Miyazaki’s sound effects are human voices, including the rumble of propellers and the rushing of wind), is as real as anything filmed.

Connections made during the chaos that follows will revisit Jiro in the coming years, all while he travels abroad to bring the latest aviation technology back to Tokyo. With World War II looming, Jiro finds his innovative designs more accepted by a country eager to be respected, while his personal life develops in ways he’d never prioritized previously.

The film works on so many levels, layers Miyazaki is renowned for (and will be missed for). His story is subtle but historically accurate. I only knew it was the Great Kanto earthquake via Wikipedia; of course, as it happened its victims wouldn’t have called it that. But by referencing a year here or there, we can place Jiro and his story in the fabric of Japanese history.

I can’t be sure if the original Japanese title (Kaze tachinu) translates directly to The Wind Rises, but the US title is apt. Wind – in all its forms – is a character in the film. We see it combust around propellers, gust through a burning Tokyo, frost in midair as Jiro exhales on a winter day. Until now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how one animates the wind. Miyazaki does it effortlessly.

And of course, the story itself is more than just a boy with a dream who grows up to be a man with a career. It is a story of human connection and collaboration, of pride and promise, of a global economy before that was even a thing. It’s sad to think Miyazaki won’t be delivering gems of this caliber anymore. All the more reason to cherish it.